The hapless renegade

The ill-fated voyages of 17th-century Irish sailor Philip Walsh summarised from court documents in the Prize Papers Collection 

Sometime in September 1690, the Irishman Philip Walsh agreed to join the crew of the ship James, marking the beginning of what would turn out to be a short and less-than-enjoyable career as a sailor.

At this time, Ireland was in the throes of a bitter civil war, and Walsh was joining a privateering vessel in the service of one of its belligerents, the Catholic king James II. Onboard, he was forced to endure deplorable living conditions, bad food and wretched company, punctuated by the mortal terror of naval engagements. Whatever initial enthusiasm Walsh had for the war soon dissipated, and so, after 3 months, he resolved to escape the service of James II and the war that had consumed Ireland.

In mid-November, when the ship was moored somewhere off the coast of County Galway, Walsh saw his chance. He made his escape onto land and ventured south. Within two weeks, he had arrived in Limerick, a substantial port town in the southwest of the island. In Limerick, Walsh mingled with other deserters and refugees displaced by the war, and a plan began to form in his mind. On 24 November 1690, he met with 11 other men in a tavern, where they discussed stealing a ship in the harbour, which they could then sail south to Falmouth in the English county of Cornwall. They agreed their target that night: a small coastal trading vessel that was tied up in the harbour, laden with wool and hides.

The next day, the confederates put their plan into execution. They stormed onto the ship, where they found six of its crew onboard, five men and a small boy. The crew were in no mood to put up any resistance, and four men allowed themselves to be put ashore. However, it turned out that the boy and one of the men were also seeking to leave Ireland, and so they agreed to join with their assailants. Walsh appointed himself captain, and the small craft set sail, under new management.

This voyage did not quite go as planned. The stolen ship left Limerick harbour flying Irish colours, but shortly after Walsh made the fateful decision to replace them with their English equivalent. Some way into their voyage, the ship had to pass by the Isles of Scilly, a chokepoint in flows of Atlantic commercial traffic, where privateers often lurked to capture shipping. Sure enough, while attempting to pass southwards around the islands, the ship was ambushed by a French privateering vessel. The renegades were forced to flee to the northeast, with their attackers in pursuit. Desperate for any kind of protection, they sought refuge in the first English port they came upon. On 8 December, Walsh and his crew managed to dock at the town of St Ives on the north coast of Cornwall, where they must have felt relief that the end of their troubles was near.

Yet the mayor of St Ives, John Lanyon, viewed the Irish sailors with some suspicion. So, he had the newcomers arrested by the town sheriff and immediately questioned them as to the reasons for their arrival. Under examination, Walsh related the entire saga that had brought him to the town since his time as a sailor aboard the James. Realising that he was now in territories held by the enemies of James II, he attempted to reassure his interrogator, claiming that all of his past in Ireland was behind him, that he was ‘not intent to serve King James anymore’ and that he was, in fact, a Protestant. Suffice to say, the mayor was unconvinced by this story. He suspected that Philip and his crew could be Catholic spies sent to gather intelligence, and so he was reluctant to release them. Unable to ransom the deserters back to Ireland, the mayor returned them to the town’s gaol, where they remained until peace in Ireland was eventually concluded in October 1691 and the captives were released.

In the end, Walsh did manage to escape the war in Ireland as intended, only he spent his time away from home country in less comfort than he might have imagined.


by Oliver Finnegan